Already at odds with Washington for a number of reasons, Damascus finds itself in the crosshairs of the Bush administration, as well as the governments of Europe.
Although Bashar al-Assad's government decried the car bombing that killed popular former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri, Syria is the prime suspect behind the killing. The United States has recalled its ambassador from Syria, and the European Union is joining the United States in calling for an international investigation, as well as for free elections in Lebanon and the lessening of Syria's presence there.
Syrian officials have variously called the assassination "a terrorist act" and "a horrendous criminal attack." President Assad urged the Lebanese people "to fortify their national unity and to reject those seeking discord." The Syrian foreign minister added: "We hope the Lebanese people will remain united and strong and continue to reject domestic strife and foreign intervention." And the Syrian information minister praised Mr. Hariri for fighting for "Lebanon's growth, prosperity and independence."
Syria acts as if the world doesn't know about its activities in Lebanon, or that it doesn't care. Their official comments are patently meaningless on account of Syria's direct link with terrorism in that country.
Syria has been sponsoring terrorism against Israel for decades, principally from southern Lebanon. Syria is the "foreign power" seeking to destabilize Lebanon and preventing it from becoming independent. Syria maintains a force of approximately 15,000 troops in Lebanon to ensure that the country follows the wishes of Damascus. The UN Security Council passed Resolution 1559 last September, reaffirming a call for respect for Lebanon's sovereignty and for the withdrawal of "all foreign troops," which meant the Syrian army.
Satellite of Syria
Lebanon has literally been a satellite of Syria. Mr. Hariri indeed fought for Lebanon's independence, but how bitterly hypocritical of the Syrian president and the information minister to praise him in death for doing so, when he was fighting for independence from Syria! In fact, he resigned from the Lebanese government last October in protest after Damascus pressured Lebanon to extend the term of its pro-Syrian president.
So you see how absurd it is for the Assad regime to wring its hands in shock and horror at the assassination of Hariri.
And it is little wonder that the Lebanese people are scorning diplomatic niceties coming out of Damascus. Thousands have marched in angry protests, attacking Syrians and Syrian interests.
In death, Hariri may have accomplished what he was not able to accomplish in life—free Beirut of Damascus' stranglehold, for Syria may have no choice but to yield to the international pressure to withdraw from Lebanon completely. Even before the assassination, the United States had already levied heavy sanctions against Syria for its support of terrorism, and Washington is poised to turn up the heat.
Israel the reason
Immediately after the death of Hariri, the Israeli government announced that Syria would have to expel the offices of terrorist groups from its territory, end its occupation of Lebanon, allow Lebanese forces to take control of the border with Israel and stop acts of aggression against Israel, before it would reenter negotiations about the sensitive issue of the Golan Heights.
The Golan Heights is a 459-square mile plateau at the southwestern edge of Syria and the northeastern tip of Israel. It's a logical jumping-off point should Syria invade Israel (as it has in past wars). For several years leading up to the 1967 war, snipers used to shoot into Israeli villages from atop this hilly area. But Israel captured the Heights in 1967, officially annexing it in December 1981 during the Begin administration. The international community hasn't recognized Israel's right of ownership and has long pressured it to return the Golan Heights to Syria.
The Golan Heights are also an important source of water for Israel, for within it are the headwaters of the Jordan River valley. The Golan Heights borders on the eastern edge of the Sea of Galilee, a major freshwater source for Israel. Bashar al-Assad's government wants to reopen negotiations for the return of the Golan Heights to Syria (talks broke down five years ago), but sentiment runs high against the idea among Israelis, given the strategic issues involved. With 20,000 settlers in the area, the cost of relocating and compensating them for their losses would amount to about $10 billion.
Israel is the reason for Syria's interest in Lebanon. It's been a staging area for attacking Israel for decades. President Bush said in his recent State of the Union address: "Syria still allows its territory, and parts of Lebanon, to be used by terrorists who seek to destroy every chance of peace in the region." Syria blatantly supports the terrorist group turned political party, Hezbollah, as well as many Palestinian terrorists.
Russia is making matters worse. Recently, it announced the sale to Syria of a sophisticated weapons system (including surface-to-air missiles), ignoring U.S. and Israeli back-channel requests that they cancel the deal. Russia's president justified the sale by declaring, "First of all, we understand and are committed to maintaining the balance of power in the region. We understand our responsibilities" ("Russia Tells Israel Arms Deal With Syria Will Go Ahead," The Daily Star, AFP, Feb. 16, 2005).
"A terrorist bazaar"
President Bashar al-Assad is much less subtle than his late father about Syria's ties to the Hezbollah militia. The elder Assad never had a face-to-face meeting with Hezbollah's leader, Sheikh Hasan Nasrallah, although Hafiz al-Assad certainly used the terrorist militia to his advantage. But the current president meets with Nasrallah frequently. Some reports say Bashar al-Assad supplied Nasrallah with missiles when Hezbollah pounded Israel from southern Lebanon in March and April 2002.
Assad is a wild card in the Middle East, as no one knows with certainty whether he has firm control of Syria, or the ability to provide stable leadership for the enigmatic nation. For that matter, no one knows exactly what goes on within this country of 18 million people.
Is the "accidental president" fully in charge, or is the country run by an old guard from his father's days? (Bashar's brother Basil was the designated heir to Hafiz al-Assad, until Basil was killed in a car accident only six years before the elder Assad's death. Bashar was an ophthalmologist practicing in London until his brother's death, when he was recalled to Syria to undergo extensive secret grooming for taking over from his father.)
Jeff Babbin of The National Review Online called the country "a terrorist bazaar" ("Regime Change, Again," Nov. 12, 2003). Washington charges that it has chemical weapons (including a stockpile of the nerve agent sarin and possibly VX) and that it is developing offensive biological ones. It has an inventory of Scud and SS-21 short-range missiles armed with chemical warheads.
Violating UN sanctions, Syria earned $3 billion in secret trading with Saddam Hussein's regime. It provided safe haven for many of Saddam's fleeing thugs, as well as for billions of dollars looted from the Iraqi people by his regime. Syria may also have given Hussein a hiding place for his weapons of mass destruction.
World News and Prophecy reported last year on Jordan's serendipitous interception of a terrorist plot to blow up its intelligence headquarters with a mixture of 71 chemicals that would have produced a toxic cloud of death for up to 80,000 people. The chemicals almost certainly came from Syria (or Syrian-controlled Lebanon), whether from Saddam Hussein's cache or from Syria's stockpiles.
That alone demonstrates the critical danger of the Syrian regime.
A journey through time
Israel and Syria have crossed swords many times throughout history. When Syria was, for the most part, a group of city-states, mainly Damascus, Hamath and Zobah, it often clashed with the kings of Israel and Judah. We read of King David killing 22,000 Syrians from Damascus and Zobah (2 Samuel 8:5).
Interaction between these territories was not always negative. Jesus and His disciples likely spoke the language of the people of Aram, which was Aramaic. When Christ began His ministry, His fame spread through all of Syria (Matthew 4:24).
Bible students will recognize the names of Syrian cities where the Church of God took root in the first century, according to the book of Acts. They include Damascus, Antioch, Seleucia and Caesarea Philippi. And, of course, the apostle Paul was struck down and called of God when en route from Jerusalem to Damascus.
Syria was of great strategic importance for many centuries, due to her position at the intersection of three continents (Asia, Africa and Europe), and on a crossroad between the Caspian Sea, the Indian Ocean, the Black Sea and the Nile River. She lay upon the famous silk route between China and Europe.
Alexander the Great conquered Syria, and after his death it passed to one of his generals, Seleucus. He and the territory he ruled became the king of the North of the prophecy of Daniel 11. Antiochus Epiphanes, who set up the first "abomination of desolation" in the temple in Jerusalem (Daniel 11:31), was a king of Syria.
Thus, modern Syria stands in the shadow of history. The Syrian Tourism Office accurately claims, "A journey through Syria is a journey through time."
Abomination of desolation yet to come
Bible students know that there is another "abomination of desolation" yet to come. So said Christ in foretelling events that will occur just before His return (Matthew 24:15). By the time of Christ, Syria had come under the control of the Roman Empire, so that great power inherited Daniel's "king of the North" mantle.
The Roman Empire waxed and waned, realizing several resurrections between Christ's time and now. Although this last great empire long since migrated from the Middle East, it still concerned itself with events in this critical region. We believe it will come to life yet again, and that it will precipitate the modern abomination of desolation in Jerusalem. You can read the details of Daniel's prophecies in our booklet The Middle East in Bible Prophecy.
Given the ever-increasing influence of the EU, as well as the historically strategic importance of Syria, it's conceivable that the final king of the North will again envelop Damascus. It is arguably an important Islamic country, if for no other reason than for its strategic location. As we reported in these pages last month, Turkey is presently aggressively petitioning to join the EU, promising that it would be a conduit for expanding European influence into Eurasia. Could the EU's umbrella of influence one day extend over Syria? Time will tell.
Democratic reform next door in Iraq (and perhaps in Lebanon soon) will bring pressure on Syria to come in from the cold of its isolation from the world community of nations. Given the relentless pressure from Washington on state sponsors of terror, Syria will definitely be making changes. WNP